by Frank Vespe
“Honest to God, you just got the impression he knew he was back where he was supposed to be and was happy to be here.”
That’s trainer Damon Dilodovico speaking of former — and future? — barn star Immortal Eyes, the nine-year-old Greatness gelding who delivered Dilodovico’s greatest, and perhaps most emotional, career victory a year ago in the $350,000 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash.
After a difficult few months in which an animal that Dilodovico calls “a once-in-a-lifetime horse for me” was sold and ran four times for New York-based trainer David Jacobson, Immortal Eyes is back home, back at Laurel.
Take a right after entering the backside; the barn’s down on the left. Immortal Eyes is two-thirds of the way down the shedrow, and you’ll likely find him with his head out of the stall, checking out the scene.
But don’t touch him.
“He doesn’t want you to touch him,” says Christine Dilodovico, who is Damon’s wife and Immortal’s groom and best buddy. “He’s not a pet,” she emphasizes.
DE FRANCIS GLORY
Immortal Eyes, dismissed by the bettors at odds of nearly 10-1 in the De Francis, broke on top and danced through the raindrops to a flashy six-length score over the sloppy Laurel main track. The De Francis isn’t what it once was — a Grade 1 staple that often attracted the best sprinters in the country. But its big purse and gaudy history give it a meaning to horsemen far beyond a run-of-the-mill Saturday stake.
“This is it,” Damon Dilodovico said to owner Bobby Abbo after the De Francis. “This is the top.”
It was the top. Problem was, the bottom wasn’t far away, either.
Abbo, who could not hold back the tears in the winner’s circle after that race, was already battling the leukemia that would take his life this past April. His wife Marcia did not want to be in the racing business.
Immortal Eyes was already nine, but he was coming off the best season of a 19-win, $1.1 million in earnings career. New York-based trainer David Jacobson made a big offer for the gelding; the deal was done.
“I wanted to throw myself on the floor and have a tantrum,” says Christine Dilodovico. “You don’t know, it was like a nightmare the whole time he was gone.”
He made his last start in the Abbo colors in April at Charles Town. In his first start for Jacobson, in June, Immortal Eyes, who had posted a win and a second in two 2014 starts for Dilodovico, ran in indifferent sixth in the $50,000 Hockessin Stakes at Delaware Park.
It didn’t get better. He ran fifth and then third in $40,000 claiming company, then a dismal sixth against $25,000 claimers.
He was, by all metrics, a long way from the horse who had won five stakes in 2013.
Privately and on social media, his fans fretted.
Meanwhile, on the Laurel backside, well-wishers told the Dilodovicos that it would all work out right. That didn’t necessarily help, either.
“I was like, ‘I don’t want to talk about it anymore,'” says Christine Dilodovico. “I didn’t want to think about it anymore, because people kept saying, ‘If it’s meant to be it’s meant to be.’ But he was meant to be back here. He was meant to be with us — he was. And when he retires, he’s meant to retire with me.”
A PLAN EMERGES
Tim Hackerman’s Stormy Stable once tried to buy Immortal Eyes.
After a good 2012, Immortal’s early 2013 had been a bit up-and-down: a win and a second in two Charles Town stakes interspersed with a fourth and a fifth in a pair at Laurel, including a disappointing, never-involved fifth in the Grade 3 Maryland Sprint Handicap.
“I think Bobby was frustrated with the horse at one time, but we were at Bowie one day and the horse worked spectacular,” said Hackerman. “He wasn’t going to sell the horse after that. He said he was frustrated with him, but he wasn’t going anywhere. I think it was more of a pipe dream.”
Hackerman and others made an offer to buy Immortal following the horse’s first race with Jacobson, in the Hockessin, but didn’t get anywhere.
Then Ned Williams of Five Hellions Farm contacted Dilodovico from Saratoga, where he was visiting.
“Ned was up there this last time he run for the quarter ($25,000),” Damon Dilodovico recalls. “He calls me up and he says, ‘We’re going to try to claim this horse.’ But they got rules that you got to run a horse or something… we looked into it as much as we could but we just couldn’t get that part of it done.”
And so Immortal ran, ran poorly, and was not claimed.
“We had talked about trying to claim the horse a while back,” Tim Hackerman says. “We had a group of maybe about 20 people, but I think after he ran last time, it scared most of the people off.”
Most of the people, perhaps. But not Williams, Hackerman, or the Dilodovicos.
The morning after Immortal’s Saratoga start, Williams and a friend went to Jacobson’s barn at Saratoga and asked a worker where the horse’s stall was. Initially puzzled, the worker then realized who Williams wanted to see: “Oh, you mean that mean SOB in 41,” he said.
The horse they found was, by all accounts, perfectly healthy: well-fed, well-groomed, legs cool.
He was also perfectly unhappy, Williams told Dilodovico: not at all curious, sulking in the back of his stall. “When he was up there, he was kinda hanging towards the back of his stall with his head in,” Dilodovico says.
Williams went straight to Jacobson and made an offer: Immortal was coming home.
Among the things it takes a village to do: raise a child. Also, get a horse from one set of connections at Saratoga to another at Laurel.
“I’m telling you it was very hard to just kinda get everything, with the Coggins, the foal papers, the health certificates,” says Damon Dilodovico. “I had a lot of help from a friend of mine, Scott Hammond.”
Hammond, a trainer, put Immortal on a van to his Fair Hill base. Dilodovico picked him up there and brought him back to the rather less glamorous Laurel backside.
“The story goes that Scott Hammond picked him up at Saratoga, and he ran up the chute to get into the van,” Hackerman recalls.
Soon enough, he was back at Laurel, back home.
“Within two days, he was 85 percent back like I knew him,” says Christine Dilodovico. “Within a week, he was Immortal all over again.”
That’s a process Damon calls “getting the nasty back.”
He also showed up back on the worktab. He zipped three furlongs in 36 flat, then four in a bullet 47 2/5.
That doesn’t mean he’ll necessarily run again. Damon says that they’ll train the horse towards a race but that “if anything goes not 100 percent,” that’ll be that; Immortal will go either to Ned Williams’ farm or another nearby farm where another Dilodovico hard-knocker, Love’s Strong Hart, resides.
And that’s OK with Hackerman. “I think we did the right thing for Damon,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of success with him, so getting the horse back was the feel-good, right thing to do.”
It also doesn’t mean he won’t run again.
“I honestly think this is what he likes to do,” says Damon Dilodovico. “We purchased him to at least get him to the races, and I’m not going to lie to you, we’re hoping he runs a hole in the wind.”
But everyone agrees: if he does run a hole in the wind, great. If not, that’s OK, too. They’ll let Immortal tell them what he wants to do now.
“That’s the really great thing now,” says Christine Dilovodico. “It’s not like it was before. It’s whatever makes this horse happy; it’s not whatever makes us happy. It’s what makes him happy.”